Not so very long ago, the Burning Question crew created quite a disturbance at Paris Vendome.
Geez. Invade France, nothing happens. Send them Jerry Lewis films, they just beg for more. Ah, but sip an aperitif after dinner and they explode in dismay.
"In Europe, every drink has its meaning: before dinner, during dinner, after dinner," chides Michel Boutemy de Guislain of the popular West Village bistro. "Aperitifs are to excite your appetite"--a few stiff drinks also help when a plate of snails arrive--"cassis and white wine says, 'Hello, enjoy.'"
According to traditional standards, American drinking habits make very little sense. Rum and coke, for instance, may say "hello" at first but eventually blurts something like, "Let's spend the next morning in a desperate struggle to retain your stomach contents." Instead of a ritual pattern of aperitif before dinner, wine with the meal, and Cognac or another digestif after, Americans regularly violate the rules of genteel drinking.
"On weekends, you see people commit all kinds of faux pas--like dropping shots of Jagermeister into beer," says Scott Blythe of Whisky Bar. "Here you just witness the fine art of getting plowed."
Yet ethnographers suggest that all cultures featuring more than one common form of alcohol assign symbolic meaning to the drinks, which often vary according to location, situation and other factors. Baseball fans in Chicago display their loyalty to the Cubs or White Sox through the brand of beer they chug. To order anything other than Grey Goose or Belvedere in an upscale Dallas bar is to risk ostracization. Splashing Jagermeister into beer identifies, most probably, an inexperienced participant. Or a lush. Indeed, we sat alongside a young woman at Martini Ranch who slurbed (remember, slurb is Burning Question slang for a quote taken from a drunk), "There's nothing like a shot of Jager and beer. Besides, I'm a lush."
Couldn't have said it better.
Thus particular drinks define behavioral expectations or social standing. In many cultures, breaking norms associated with public consumption would be considered not the mark of inexperience, but a serious affront.
Such formal structures simply aren't as strong here. "The rules aren't there for me," says Mary Higby, bartender at The Bone. "We do what we want and suffer the consequences later." Americans shoot sipping drinks, order Cognac before dinner and pour wheat beers all winter long. "The first month of summer, we were running through Guinness like you wouldn't believe," reports Chad Wynn at Thomas Avenue Beverage Company. No wonder our behavior riles steady Old-World types.
But have we lost the fine art of drinking?
Well, even in this country, bar patrons alter their behavior according to location. People who rarely acknowledge one another on a day-to-day basis will hold earnest conversations at the bar. Social climbers order martinis or scotch for its appearance. We expect the social value assigned to particular drinks, designer labels, cars, and such to confer that status on the person drinking, wearing, or driving.
"By acknowledging a rule, you engage in something exclusive," explains Matthew, Bali Bar bartender and poet laureate of Dallas nightlife, "but the space where the rules existed has gone away. The rules are still there, but we've lost the space where that dialog could occur." In other words, we act out our inexact customs in an arena muddied by diverse cultural influences, indistinct class boundaries and a national memory so short that we forget our country's wild swings between temperance and binge drinking.
We also tend to romanticize the past, adds Chris Michael, bartender at Nikita. "There's definitely been some elegance lost," he says. "But maybe it was always just about getting fucked up."
"There's probably more of a lack of education, really," says Ryan Tinsley, bartender at Abacus. "I don't think anyone's laid out the guidelines." Indeed, thanks to laws prohibiting any real knowledge of alcohol until well after maturity, Americans generally learn from equally inexperienced peers. Anna, a young woman downing chocolate flavored drinks at Martini Ranch, blames the older generations. "Somewhere along the way it broke down," she says of the drinking arts. "There was no one there to teach us."
Thus, adds Leann Berry, bartender at Ciudad, "the kids are out there drinking to get drunk. They don't savor a drink. Even when they have a martini, they gulp it down."
Dan Carr at Capital Grille observes that quite a few patrons follow a pattern involving a martini, then wine with dinner, followed by a port. "Then there are others who just throw down," he laughs. Like other bartenders, he attributes the demise of Old-World tradition to the breadth of the market. "There are just too many options now." Each year, new products hit the market--micro-brewed beers, flavored malt beverages, sickeningly sweet concoctions poured into martini glasses--and flare up in popularity before fading under the glare of the next trend.
"The market has been flooded with everything," agrees Ian Green, bartender at The Londoner. "We have this Remy Red shit," he continues, holding up an unopened and brightly attired bottle from the display shelf. "Now who would mix Cognac and fruit juice? Perhaps we've lost the fine art of discernment rather than the art of drinking."
And that seems to be the consensus. We attach ourselves to a series of fad drinks in order to fit in. We order based upon popularity rather than knowledge. And the sheer size of the market blurs many social distinctions and obliterates traditional methods. While habits exist--beer at football parties, wine with formal occasions--it's not unusual for middle-class scum like us to sip a good scotch at Al Biernat's next to a Highland Park scion chugging Bud Light.
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"The drink," says Ben Caudle of Martini Ranch, "has become secondary."
Our answer, then, to this week's Burning Question, is a firm yes and no. Each drink still conveys a social meaning, but each individual determines that meaning. We follow certain conventions when sitting in a bar but cannot quite grasp the rigid traditions of more established cultures.
"But don't forget," Guislain at Paris Vendome says, "we've been doing it for thousands of years."
Oh, well. Guess it requires quite a bit of drinking to forget all those humiliating defeats.